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Journal of Pra~atics 12 (1988) 445465 North-Holland



Received September 1987; revised version January 1988

This paper examines women's and men's complimenting behaviour, exploring the function of compliments on the one hand as positively affective speech acts and exemplary positive politeness strategies, And on the other as potentially face t::r'=atening acts. Using a corpus of over 450 compliment exchanges, an analysis is provided of the distnL,,tion of compliments between women anu men anu some memouomglcal considerations relating to the =ex of the researcher are briery discussed. The syntactic patterns and topics characterizing the complimem~ ,,f ~%,-~;.1~.~;~ ,,,;c New Zealanders are described; the relative status as well as the sex of givers and receivers of compliments is examined, and responses to compliments are categorized according to their function as well as the responder's sex. The findings are related to the hypothesis that compliments may serve different functions in women's and men's interaction.

1. Inn'oduefion
This paper examines complimenting behaviour in New Zealand and focusses in particular on the question of whether there are differences in the way women and men use compliments. There are a number of different aspects of usage one may consider. Compliments have been described as remarkably formulaic speech acts (Manes and Wolfson (1981)), for instance, drawing on a very narrow range of syntactic patterns and iexical items. Given tiffs finding, do women and men have different preferences among the formulas available for expressing compliments? It has been saggested that compliments are devices used to flatter superiors. Given the subordinate status of w,~men in our society, do higher status men receive more compliments than higher status women? Do female complim~nters tend to direct their compliments 'upwards' more often than male complimenters? Stereotypes suggest that women are preocct~pied with appearance and men with possessions. What then do men and women compliment each other on? Does an analysis of the topics of compliments support the stereotypes? And given the claim that women are
* Author's address: J. Holmes, Victoria University of Wellington, Private Bag, Wellington, New Zealand. 0378-2166/88/$3.50 1988, Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. (North-Holland)


J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness

more polite than men (e.g. Lakoff (1975)), do both sexes accept compliments equally graciously? Finally and more fundamentally one might ask if there are alternative possible explanations for any of the patterns identified. The present analysis suggests that when the functions of compliments for women and men are considered, an underlying coherence is identifiable in the complimenting patterns described. In order to answer these questions and explore the issues they raise, a corpus of 484 New Zealand compliment exchanges was collected using the ethnographic method pioneered in this area by Manes and Wolfson (1981). The compliments and compliment responses were collected with the assistance of New Zealand students who opted for this topic from a range of possible projects.1 The students were asked to note down a sequence of twenty or so compliments in the order they occurred in their hearing without selection or censorship. They noted as soon and as accurately as possible the exact words used in the compliment exchange, both compliment and response, together with relevant contextual details. The overwhelming majority (23 out of 25, or 92%) of those selecting this topic were female students and the implications of this for the data analysis are discussed below. The complimenters were predominantly middle class New Zealanders of European descent and it is the complimenting norms of this group which are the focus of the study. Compliments produced by and addressed to non-native speakers of English have not been included in this analysis. Irvine (1986:243) points out that analyses of speech functions such as compliments are often circular in that they do not provide information which would enable one to identify a compliment unless one already intuifive!y knew what utterances counted as compliments. While a thorough discussion of the pragmatic criteria which speakers use to identify compliments is much-needed, it may be helpful to begin with a broad definition of a compliment. A compliment is a speech act which explicitly or implicitly attribltes credit to someone other than the speaker, usually the person addressed, for some ~good' (possession, characteristic, skill etc.) which is positively valued by tile speaker and the hearer.

1 The following students contributed examples to the corpus: Denise Braara, Sara Cotterall, Melanie Cranko, Margaret Davey, Sadhna D. Deo, Hilary Drummond de Zapata, Tania Fitzgerald, Duncan Forsyth, Gerd Free, Shirley Anne Gibbons, Janet Kilgour, Catherine McCausland, Fiona McMichael, Sue Millar, Sonia Millet, Lesley Minshall, Ashley Ngan Kee, Lia Sale, Jonathan Newton, Anna Pethig, Kate Rennie, Heather Sangster Smith, Liu Shueng, He~en Vere-Jones, Lara Wodinsky. I would also like to express my appreciation to Marie Verivaki who assisted with the classification of the data and to Steve Haslett who provided invaluable and extensive assistance and statistical expertise. It is worth noting that on his advice the level of significance of results recorded in the tables is provided only where they proved statistically significant, though statistical trends are also noted.

J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness


Compliments normally attribute the valued 'good' to the addressee, and even when a compliment apparently refers to a third person it may well be indirectly complimenting the addressee, as (1) illustrates.

(1) Context: R's old schoolfriend is visiting and comments on one of the
children's manners. C(omplimenter) What a polite child! R(ecipient) Thank you. We do our best. The utterance can be interpreted as a compliment since it indirectly attributes credit to the addressee for good parenting. Though the definition of the term 'compliment' would (rightly in my view) include utterances attributing credit to someone other than the addressee, for the purposes of the analysis in this paper such utterances have been excluded. So examples like (2), for instance are not included in the data analysed here. (2) Context: two elderly women discussing a new T v" news-reader. A. Oh but you must admit she's got a lovely voice. B. She certainly has. It is perhaps worth stating explicitly here too that in classifying utterances as compliments, it is the attributed underlying intention that has been the guiding criterion, rather than any surface form indicators (see Leech (1983)).

2. The fu,~ction of complimenting behaviour The simplest analysis of the function of compliments treats them as pos:~ively affective speech acts di,eeted to the addressee which serve to increase or consolidate the solidarity between the speaker and addres.~e~ (see Holmes (1984b)). This is certainly the most ob~-ious function the; serve. They are social lubricants serving to 'create or maintain rappc, r:' (Wolfson (1983b: 86)). (3) is an example which clearly illustrates this function: (3) Context: two women, good friends, meeting in the lift at their work-place. C. Hi how are you. You're looking just terrific. R. Thanks. I'm pretty good. It seems likely, however, that in the complex give and take of normal social exchange they may serve other functions too. Brown and Levinson's (1978) illuminating analysis of politeness behaviour provides some suggestions. They introduce the concepts of positive and negative politeness defining these as forms of "redressive action" counterac-


J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness

ting "the potential face damage" of a face threatening act (FTA) (Brown and Levinson (1978: 74-75)). Positive politeness is oriented towards the heater's positive self-image. In Brown and Levinson's words, it is "approach-based; it 'anoints' the face of the addresee by indicating that in some respects, S wants H's wants (e.g. by treating him as a member of an in-group, a friend, a person whose wants and personality traits are known and liked)" (1978: 75). Negative politeness, on the other hand, is essentially "avoidance-based" (1978: 75). It recognizes the addressee's basic want "to maintain claims of territory and selfdetermination" (1978:75). It assures the addressee that the speaker recognises and will not interfere with the addressee's freedom of action. These two types of politeness are realized in a variety of ways, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, and Brown and Levinson explore in some detail the great range of lingmstic strategies they have identified, illustrating from Tamil and Tzeltal as well as English. In other words they examine a variety of verbal manifestations of politeness as responses to FTAs. it is interesting to consider compli ma, nt"~ a-ll~.Ll~lLl.I 0 h a , h , ' J , t d t ~ , , t - ,l~ ,~-h~,~ * ~ o g~&l~1%.l~l l~'TILLllEl LlllO
l l ~ l | l ~ . P l ~ .


Not surprisingly, compliments appear to conform to Brown and Levinson's description of utterances which may be used as positive politeness devices. They ameliorate the threat of an FTA by 'anointing' the addressee's positive face, by 'noticing' or 'attending' to the addressee's interests (Brown and Levinson (1978: 108)). Brown and Levinson provide the following example: (4) 'Goodness, aren't your roses beautiful! I was just coming by to borrow a cup of flour'. (Brown and Levinson (1978: 98)) In this function, as with their positively affective function, one can describe compliments as devices for reducing social distance and reinforcing solidarity between speaker and hearer. At the very least they are aimed at counteracting or neutralising the potentially distancing effect of an FTA. But it is also suggested that compliments and compliment responses can themselves be considered as FTAs (Brown and Levinson (1978:71-73)). In other words, a compliment may not only function as a redressive strategy in the context of a more threatening act, but compliments may themselves threaten the addressee's negative face (a person's want that her or his actions be unimpeded by others), and compliment responses may threaten the speakcr's positive face (a person's need to have her or his wants recognized as desirable by others). Compliments can be regarded as face-threatening to the extent that they imply the complimenter envies the addressee in some way or would like to have something belonging to the addressee. This phenomenon is perhaps most obvious in cultural contexts such as the Samoan, where an expression of admiration for an object imposes an obligation on the addressee to offer it to the complimenter, as (5) illustrates.

J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness


(5) Context: Pakeha (i.e. New Zealander ef European origin) to Samoan friend whom she is visiting. C. What an unusual necklace. It's beautiful. R. Please take it. In this instance the complimenter was very embarrassed at being offered as a gift the object she had admired. This was perfectly predictable, however, to anyone familiar with Samoan cultural norms with respect to complimenting behaviour. In other cultures too, however, compliments may threaten the addressee's negative face in that they imply at least some element of enD' and desire to have what the addressee possesses, whether ap object or a desirable trait or skill (see Brown and Levinson (1978"252)). Additionally of course they put the addressee in the complimenter's debt. In "debt-sensitive culture.." (Brown and Levinson (1978:252)) the recipient of a compliment may be regarded as incurring a heavy debt.
aa,~., !.sa~,o~ul, a . l l t a l c v o l b a U ~ L ~ ~ U ~ . I I ~ . Y l I I I I ~ I I U I I ~ 1~ ~

colIlplex :SO~lonngUiS[lC

skill. The apparently transparent function of compliments as positively affectire speech acts contributing to the solidarity between participants may represent only the first layer of the analysis. In some contexts their positive affect may be serving the purpose of mitigating the effects of a preceding FTA, or alternatively they may be perceived in other contexts as face threatening speech acts. z In what follows, it will be argued that women tend to use compliments as positively affective speech acts whereas men mere often perceive them as face-threatening acts. The suggested pattern provides an intriguing mirror-image of Kuiper's (1987) analysis of how insults, which would certainly be experienced as FTAs by most women, perform a solidaritymaintaining function for at least some men. Various patterns in compliment use will be described in support of these claims. 3. Sex of eompUmenters_ sad receivers The most obvious pattern revealed by the data is that women give and receive significantly more compliments than men do, as table 1 illustrates. 'This
Table 1 Compliments according to sex of participants. Complimenter-Recipient Female-Female (F-F) Female-Male (F-M) Male-Female (M-F) Male-Male (M-M) Total Number 248 80 112 44 484 % 51.2 16.5 23.1 9 100

2 The functions of compliments and the fact that utterances serving as compliments may simultaneously express other functions are issues discussed more thoroughly in Holmes (1987b).


tY. Hr/mes / Compliments, sex and politeness

pattern has also been found in comparable American data, as noted by Wolfson (1983b: 92), though she provides no figures. Table 1 shows that women gave 67.7% of all the compliments recorded and received 74.3% of them. It is also clear that compliments between males were relatively rare (only 9%), and that even taking account of females' compliments to males, they received overall considerably fewer compliments than females (only 25.5%). Complimenting appears to be a speech behaviour occurring much more frequently in interactions involving women than men. There is, however, an interesting methodological consideration which is relevant here, namely the ~ex of the data collectors. As mentioned above the overwhelming majority (92%) of the data collectors were female students. Moreover a proportion (12.4%) of the compliments recorded were addressed to the researchers. Thus the number of female recipients is probably higher than it would be if the data had been collected by equal numbers of male and female students. While recognizing that there are not enough data from the male students to draw firm conclusions, it is worth noting that the data do support this suggestion that the number of compliments noted between females is likely to be greater when the researcher is female (average 10.7 for female data collectors vs. 0.5 for males), while the number of compliments between males collected by male researchers is likely to be greater (average 6 for male data-collectors vs. 1.4 for fem~!es). See table 2.
Table 2 Complimerts according to sen of participants and researcher. Sex of researcher Comph'rnenter-RecJ,~ent Number Average per researcher F (N = 23) 10.7 3.1 4.1 1.4 Number Average per researcher M (N -- 2) 0.5 4.5 9 6

F'emale-~-~rnale ~F-F) Female-Male (F-M) l~-~dle-Female (M-F) l~ale--Male (M-M) Total

247 71 94 32 444

1 9 18 12 40

While the researcher's sex is a potential source of bias, the figures nevertheless suggest that even with equal numbers of female and male datacollectors compliments between females will be more frequent than compliments between males, though the imbalance would not be so dramatic (60% vs. 40%). Moreover given the ethnographic approach and the aim of collecting a sample of naturally-occurring compliments, imbalances in the distribution of compliments between the sexes are not surprising and are indeed a proper focus of interest here. It would have been possible of course to ask

J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and pofiteness


students to ensure they collected equal numbers of compliments from each sex and addressed to each sex. But it would then have been impossible to make any statements about which sex uses compliments most frequently in natural contexts. All this suggests that further research should focus on the contexts in which compliments occur. It would be interesting to match the contexts used for data collection in terms of the sex of participants (including the data collectors) to check to what extent the patterns reported in table 1 are a~ artefact of the data-collection technique. Though the general patterns recorded in table 1 are supported by the American data, it appears from Wolfson's comments that the largest proportion of her data was also collected by females. 3 And while discussions with male students and colleagues provide support tor the patterns in table 1, one needs to be cautious since it is possible that their cerements derive from unconscious stereotypes. Thus while compliments ~ppea.~ to occur more frequently between females and to be ~ven most often b~ females, more research is needed to confirm the validity of this finding across a range of contexts. The frequency patterns identified are consistent with the hypothesis that women generally perceive compliments as positively affective speech acts, while men may perceive them differently. The patterns are also consistent with other research on the relationship between sex and language. There is a substantial body of evidence supporting the view that, in general, womens linguistic behaviour can be broadly characterized as 'afliliative' or cooperative, rather than competitive or control-oriented (Cameron (1985), Kalcik (1975), Smith (1985)) and as interactively facilitative and positive politenessoriented (Holmes (1984b, 1986), Thorne, Kramarae and Henley (1983)). This research describes women's contributions to interaction as 'other-oriented', and, given that women regard compliments as positive politeness devices, the finding that they use more compliments than men is consistent with this orientation. Why do women receive more compliments than men.'? Compliments between women are the most frequent category in the data, even when adjustment is made for the sex of the interviewer, but it is noteworthy that men compliment women far more often than they compliment other men. And this is true of the data collected both by male and female researchers. One explanation might be that women's positive attitude to compliments is recognized by both sexes in the community. However, the deviation from an equal ~stribution between the four groups can be attributed as much to the low numbers of compliments received by
3 Manes and Wolfson comment that "a large portion of these compliments were collected by the authors" (1981:116) and the remainder by students. From the list of student n:.mes acknowledged (Manes and Wolfson (1981:132)), it appears that their data collectors were also predominantly females.


J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness

men as to the higher numbers received by women. The appropriate question then would be why people don't compliment men as often as they do women. It appears to be much more acceptable and socially appropriate to compliment a woman than a man. One could speculate that because compliments express social approval one might expect more of them to be addressed 'downwards' as socializing devices, or directed to the socially insecure to build their confidence, and that the pattern is thus explained by referring to women's socially subordinate status in society. Wolfson (1984) takes this view saying that "women because of their role in the social order, are seen as appropriate recipients of all manner of social judgments in the form of compliments ... the way a woman is spoken to is, no matter what her status, a subtle and powerful way of perpetuating her subordinate role in society" (Wolfson (1984:243)). On the other hand if men regard compliments as FTA% _~.Sembarrassing and discomfiting, then it is not surprising that the fewest comphments occur between men. i am suggesting that compliments are appropriately regarded not as putdown devices or patronising linguistic strategies but rather as positively affecti~" speech acts. They serve as signals of solidarity and, as such, one might expect them more frequently in same-sex interactions than cross-sex interactions. While this is clearly true for women, supporting my interpretation of their function, it is not for men. It may be that males do not consider compliments the most appropriate way of expressing solidarity. They may use other linguistic and non-ling,i~,;c ~tr.~*~gies for this purpose (see Kuiper (1987), Phillips (1980)). Alternatively the contexts in which women and men perceive compliments as appropriate ways of expressing positive politeness may be different. Perhaps compliments are not a preferred male strategy for expressing friendship, and men therefore use them only when (as they perceive it) required by societal politeness rules (e.g. following a meal). They do not use compliments as (again in their view) 'gratuitous' personalised expressions of solidarity. Whereas for women compliments function as appropriate signals of solidarity in a much wider range of contexts. Such speculations require a fuller analysis of other aspects of complimenting behaviour such as the topics of compliments, the status differences between those involved, and the different types of responses used. Before describing the results for these variables, however, it is worth looking at some of the syntactic features of compliment exchanges in the data.

4o Syntactic patterns of compliments

Compliments are remarkably formulaic speech acts in that a very small number of lexical items and syntactic patterns account for the great majority of them. Manes and Wolfson (1981), for instance, pointed out that three

J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness


syntactic patterns accounted for 85% of the 686 compliments in their American corpus. This finding is replicated in the New Zealand data, with a remarkable correspondence in the precise form of the syntactic patterns favoured in each dialect, as I have shown elsewhere (Holmes (1987a,b)). Thus compliments provide further evidence of the pervasiveness of formulaic speech acts or lexicalized sentence stems as described by Pawley (1985), Pawley and Syder (1983)).
Table 3 Syntactic patterns of compliments according to speaker sex. Syntactic formula~ F No. 1. ( a ) N P BE (b) BE LOQFIn~ (INT) ADJ 121 / 19 j % 42.1 M No. 51 / 13) % 40


You're looking terrb~c ~ one') LIKE NP 59 e.g. I s#nply love that skirt 3, (a) PRO BE a (INT) ADJ NP "~ e.g. That's a very nice coat or ~, 38 (b) PRO BE (IN'T) (a) ADJ NP / e.g. That's really great juice J 4. What (a) (ADJ) NP! 26 e.g. What lovely children, 5. (INT) ADJ (NP) 17 e.g. Really cool ear-rings 6. Isn't NP ADJ! 5 e.g. lsn't this food wonderful! Total 285







7.8 5.1 1.5 85.7

2 19 1 132

1.25 11.8 0.6 82.4

Following Manes and Wolfson (1981) BE represents any copula verb, LIKE represents any verb of liking: eg. love, enjoy, admire, ADJ represents any semantically positive adjective and INT represent.~ any boosting intensifier e.g. really, very.

In table 3 the mos~ frequently occurring syntactic pattcr::~ "~ the New Zealand corpus are analysed according to the sex of the complimenter. It is immediately obvious that the syntactic formulaicness of compliments characterizes equally those used by New Zealand women and those used by New Zealand men. Moreover it is also clear that the syntactic patterns used by women and men are more similar than they are different, and indeed in terms of the relative frequency of different patterns they also resemble the patterns used by American English speakers (Manes and Wolfson (1981)). Pattern 1 appears to be universally the most widely used English compliment formula regardless of dialect or sex, accounting for at least 40% of the data in the samples anMysed.


J. Holmes / Complimems, sex and politeness

The chi-square statistic for table 3 is 18.788 on 5 degrees of freedom (p = 0.002). The major contributors to this statistic are the different uses of formulas 4 and 5 by females and males. Women use the rhetorical pattern 4 (e.g. What a neat blouse) significantly more often than men (cell chisqua~e~-5.3i), while men use the minimal pattern 5 (e.g. Great shoes) significantly more often than women (cell chi-square = 5.07). The former is a syntactically marked formula, involving exclamatory word order and intonation (Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and $vartvik (1985: 825-826; 833-834)); the latter by contrast reduces the syntactic pattern to the minimum elements. Given that compliments are quintessentially expressive in function, as discussed above, the exclamatory pattern uses syntactic means to reinforce this function while the minimal formula 5 relies on intonation and lexis to convey the speaker's positive intent. Indeed whereas a rhetorical pattern can be seen as emphasizing the addressee- or interact/on-oriented characteristics of compliments, the minimal patterns represented by formula 5 could be regarded as attenuating or hedging on this function. Furthermore it is interesting to note that there are no examples of pattern 4 in male-male interactions, providing further support for the suggestion that these patterns tend to be associated with female comTA;menting behaviour. The particular ~':male vs. male preferences identified in this table provide a good example o: the gtrategic use of different devices for affecting the illocutionary strength of positive and negatively affective speech acts (see Holmes (1984a)). It is possible to attenuate or to strengthen a positively affective speech act 3uch as a compliment in a variety of ways. In these data men choose to attenuate and women to strengthen the force of the act by their selection of syntactic formulas. It is worth noting that these preferences are consisteni with the view that women perceive compliments as unambiguously positively affective acts while men perhaps feel more ambivalent about using them. The female preference for formula 2 (e.g. ! really like your hair) over formula 3 (e.g. That's a very nice piece of work), compared to the males' tendency to use each formula about equally is not statistically significant, though it is suggestive in that it provides support for the claim that women tend to prefer personalised and expressive forms as opposed to impersonalised forms (see Aries (1982), Kalcik (1975)). This is consistent with a general argument that characterises women's style as personalised, social and ".nteraction-oriented rather than impersonal, instrumental and content-oriented (e.g. Baird and Bradley (1979), Piliavin and Martin (1978), Preisler (1986)). 5. Top|cs of compliments To be heard as a compliment an utterance must refer to something which is positively valued by the participants and attributed to the addressee. This

J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness


would seem to permit an infinite range of possible topics for compliments, but in fact the vast majority of compliments refer to just a few broad topics: appearance, ability or performance, possessions, and some aspect of personality or friendliness, with the first two accounting for 81.2% of the data (Holmes (1987b)). When one examines the distribution of compliment topics by sex, there is a deafly observable tendency for women to receive compliments on their appearance and to compliment each other on their appearance. 56.7% of all the compliments women received in the New Zealand data related to aspects of their appearance, and 61% of all the compliments between women related to appearance, compared to only 36% of the compliments between males, as table 4 demonstrates.
Table 4 Interaction between compliment topic and sex of participants. Topic Appeara~,ce Ability/performance Possessions Personality/friendship Other Total F-F ! 51 (61) 50 (20) 30 M-F 53 (47) 49 (44) 2 F-M 32 (40) 28 (35) 9 M-M 16 (36) 14 (32) 11



(1 l)






248 Note: Percentages are given in parentheses.




The differences between the complimenting behaviour of females and males described in table 4 are statistically highly significant (p = 0.000005). The high proportion of compliments on appearance in female interaction is one relevant factor here. But the male preference for complimenting other men, but not women, on possessions contributes very strongly to the statistically significant sex differences. A compliment on someone's appearance is difficult to interpret other than as an expression of so.qdarity, a positively affective speech act, so the predominance of this compliment topic in women's interactions is censistent with the view that women use compliments for this positive function. Compliments on possessions are much more vulnerable to interpretation as FTAs since: as illustrated in (5) above, there is the possibility that the complimenter will be heard as expressing desire for the object referred to. To this extent men's greater use of these compliments reinforces the suggestion that they are more likely to perceive and experience compliments as potential FTAs. In


J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness

other words if possession-oriented compliments are experienced as more facethreatening than others - which seems feasible since such compliments focus on things which are in theory transferable from complimenter to recipient then men certainly use more face-threatening compliments than women. However it is interesting to note that, unlike American men, 4 New Zealand men do give and receive compliments on their appearance (39% of all compliments they receb,,e)~ and that these are as frequent as compliments on ability or skill. There are examples, nevertheless, when compliments on appearance clearly caused surprise. In one case, for instance, a male's reaction to a compliment on the colour of his (bright red) tie was shocked silence followed by embarrassed laughter. The third factor contributing to the statistically significant sex differences is the male preference for complimenting women on ability or skill. 44% of all the compliments given by males to females fell into this category. The interaction of topic with sex and status which is discussed below throws furthe~ light on this finding suggesting tha~ skills or abilities tend to be considered appropriate topics for compliments to those of different status. Hence the tendency for men to compliment women on this topic may reflect wome~;s subordinate social status in the society as a whole. Compliments on a person's appearance may be felt to presume an intimacy which could be regarded as inappropriate in some cross-sex interactions, whereas comments on another's abilities may be justified in many social contexts (see for example (6) and (7) below). Again detailed contextual analysis is needed, but a consideration of status can take us a little further in unravelling relevant factors, even using large corpus data.

6 Stzt~s ,~f c~a~r~e~ers and recipients The New Zealand data used in this analysis consist predominantly of compliments between status equals. 79% of the compliments occurred between equals (Holmes (1987b)). Much of the data came from informal interactions between friends and it would be useful to explore rather different settings in further research to ensure the patterns identified in the corpus are not artefacts of the methodology. It is worth noting, however, that the general pattern is supported by Wolfson's research. Analysing American data from a wide range of settings she comments that "the overwhelming majority of all compliments are given to people of the same age and status as the speaker" (1983b: 91).

* Wolfson's comments (1983b: 93) sugg:st that in America compliments on appearance may be ex~fienced by males as very big FTAs, and though one might speculate on the reasons, further analysis in context is clearly required to illuminate this issue.

J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness


Turning to the question of sex differences in the status of complimenters and recipients of compliments a number of qaestions arise. Do women for instance compliment those of lower status more than men do? Do men compliment women of higher status more than higher status men? Table 5 provides some answers to these questions.
Table 5 Distribution of compliments by relative status and sex of participants. Sex of Complimenter-Recipient Relative status Recipient is higher in status Recipient is equal in status F-F

M-F 17 (15) 84 (75) II (9.8) 112


F-M 5 (6.3) 70 (87.5) 5 (6.2) 80

M-M 4 (9) 34 (77.3) 6 03.6) 44

(12.5) 193 (77.8) (9.7) 248


Note: Percentages are given in parentheses.

The results recorded in table 5 suggest that it is almost twice as likely that a higher status female will be complimented as a higher status male. Possibly complimenters perceive women of high status as less intimidating than higher status males and they are therefore brave enough to cor~.r,iment them, perhaps estimating the risk of a rebuff to be less than if the addressee were male. The fact that this is true whether the complirL:eater is m l e or female, and that indeed males are even more likely to compliment wo~ ~,en ~f higher status than women are, supports the hypothesis tl'~at higher status females are perceived as more receptive to compliments th~,:i higher status males. Higher status males may be perceived as high risk addressee,,~ by both sexes. Moreover since one would predict the risk to be highest in cross-sex compliments upwards, it is clear that for male complimenters status differences are more salient than sex differences in determining how risky z, compliment is perceived as being: Higher status men are clearly perceived as less appropriate recipients of compliments than higher status women. This interpretation of the patterns would be consistent with the view that there is a higher probability that men may experie~:ce a compliment as an FTA, whereas a woman is more likely to perceive it as a positively affective speech act, regardless of relative status. If true, this would be likely to encourage complimenters to address compliments upwards to women and discourage them to higher status men where the risk of offence would be too great. To pursue this further it is useful to consider the interaction of status and topic as well as the sex of participants.


J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness

Particular topics appear to be more common in compliments between those of unequal status. In the corpus as a whole compliments upwards or downwards were twice as likely to relate to work performance or skill (54%) as to appearance (27%), while between equals just the reverse was true: Compliments on appearance (57%) were over twice as frequent as those on performance or skill (25%) (Holmes (1987b)).
Table 6 Distribution of compliments by status, sex of participants and topic. Sex of Complimenter-Recipient Relative status F-F % M-F % F-M %

M-M %

Recipient is higher in status Appearance Possessions Skill Recipient is equal in status Appearance Possessions Skill Recipient is lower in status Appearance Possessions Skill

4.8 2.4 4.8

1.8 0.9 I 1.6

1.3 3.8

2.3 2.3 4.6

50.4 8.9 12.9 5.7 0.8 2.4 86.5

45.5 0.9 23.2 8.9 92.8

40 8.8 27.5 1.3 3.8 93.1

31.8 22.7 15.9 2.3 ! 1.4 93.3

Table 6 confirms the observation that though appearance is the most frequent topic of compliments between equals, regardless of sex, this tendency is clearly strongest between women and weakest between men. Indeed between women appearance compliments dominate regardless of status differences. Compliments on appearance are generally perceived as most appropriate between those who know each other well, and clearly identity of sex decreases social distance and over-rides status differences between women more than between men. This is further supported by the fact that status differences generally reduce the likelihood of occurrence of appearance compliments; this is a statistically significant difference, especially for male complimenters (p = 0.090913; p = 9.025). In general skills are more often a topic of compliments between those of different status than appearance, but again sex identity is relevant since it appears to reduce the distancing effect of status difference, particularly for women. The almost total absence of appearance compliments between crosssex pairs of different status, however, is a clear indication of the link between

d. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness


appearance compliments and solidarity-based relationships. Conversely the fact that men focus on skills in compliments to lower status men (p = 0.06) and different status women (p= 0.00001), both results being statistically significant, suggests that they experience these groups as most socially distant. This would also support the suggestion that appeaJ'ance compliments are most likely to be experienced as FTAs by men when re, eived from complimenters of different status. (6) and (7) provide examples from interactions I have observed (not from the corpus): (6) Context: receptionist to high status male whom she knew only slightly. C. Tl'at's a nice suit. R. Mr Avery's expecting me I think. (7) Context: Chinese student to academic with some administrative influence. C. You are a very O e a u t A .,'. l ~,t ~ e r s o n .
D NO ~ t~t ~ t ~!1

The male recipient in (6) simply ignored the compliment. The female in (7) was acutely embarrassed and strongly rejected it. Given their function as solidarity signals such compliments may be experienced as presumptuous from subordinates by superiors of either sex, but if men also find compliments on their appearance discomfiting, the negative effect will be even greater.

7. Compliment responses Finally in this discussion of sex differences in the functions of New Zealand compliments it is useful to examine compliment responses. In an interesting analysis Pomerantz (1978) points out that responses represent the recipient's resolution of conflicting conversational constraints. In any conversational exchange, she suggests, the preferred second part will represent an agreement with the previous utterance (Pomerantz (1978: 83)). There is thus pressure on the recipient of a compliment to agree with the complimenter and accept the compliment. On the other hand, there is strong pressure on speakers to avoid or minimize self-praise. Pomerantz claims that the implicit ideal in American culture is to accept a compliment graciously (1978:80) but notes that her American data reveal that "a large proportion of compliment responses deviate from the model response of accepting compliments" with "a prevalence of disagreements and rejections" (1978:81). Though she provides many extended examples of different types of compliment exchanges, her analysis is not a quantitative one, and she appears to include in this reference to "disagreements and rejections", responses which in my view express qualified acceptance rather than outright rejection. In the New Zealand data by far the most common response to a


J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and peliteness

compliment is to accept it, with the next most frequent response being to deflect the credit; it is relatively rarely that New Zealanders overtly reject compliments (Holmes (1987b)).
Table 7 Compliment responses according to responder's sex. F Response type A. ACCEPT l. Appreciation/agreement token e.g. thanks, yes 2. Agreeing utterance :.g. I think it's lovely too. 3. Downgrading~qualifying utterance e.g. It's not too bad is it. 4. Return compliment e.g. You're looking good too. Subtotal B. REJECT 1. Disagreeing utterance e.g. I'm afraid I don't like it much. 2. Question accuracy e.g. Is beautiful the right word? 3. Challenge ~ince.dty e.g. You don't really mean that. Subtotal C. DEFLECT/EVADE 1. Shift credit 5 e.g. My mother knitted it. 2. Informative comment 33 e.g. I bought it at that Vibrant Knits place 3. Ignore 8 e.g. It's time we were leaving isn't it? 4. Legitimate evasion 29 Context needed to illustrate 5. Request reassurance/repetition 17 e.g. Do you really think so? Subtotal Total" 92 330 1.5 10 2.4 8.8 5.2 27.8 100 9 6 16 5 36 118 7.9 5.3 14 4.4 31.6 100 23 7 3 33
7 5

M % No. %


52 110 29 14 205

15.8 33 8.8 4.2 62

18 40 ii 4 73

15.8 35 9.6 3.5 64

4.4 2.6 0.9 7.9

2.1 09 10

3 1 9

There were 36 compliments followed immediately by a second compliment (e.g. What a lovely jacket. It really suits you.). While formally these can be analysed as two syntactically different compliment patterns, they generally elicited just one response. Hence the total number of responses (440) is smaller than the total number of compliments analysed (484).

J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness


Using Pomerantz's discussion as a starting point, three broad categories of compliment response were developed to describe the New Zealand corpus: ACCEPT, REJECT and DEFLECT or EVADE (see Holmes (1987b) for a fuller discussion). Though not always mutually exclusive these categories accounted satisfactorily for the great majority of examples in the New Zealand data. s Each has a number of sub-categories with fairly transparent labels. Table 7 identifies and illustrates the categories with examples which can be interpreted as responses to a compliment such as 'What a beautiful jersey !' Table 7 shows that essentially there is no significant difference between the women and the men in terms of the likelihood that they will accept (p = 0.98) or reject a compliment (p = 0.71), or evade responding (p = 0.20). Moreover both sexes are most likely to accept with an agreeing comment and least likely to reject a compliment by challenging the compiimenter's sincerity (p = 0.00004). These patterns contrast with those of other cultures which are perhaps more "debt-sensitive" in Brown and Levinson's terms (i978: 252). in a study of Malaysian students, for example, the proportion of REJECT responses at 41% was much higher (Holmes (1987b)). Though there are no significant differences between the sexes in choice of overall strategy, if we examine preferred strategies within the three major categories there are a couple of within-category differences which deserve comment. It seems more likely that a man will ignore or legitimately evade a compliment than that a woman will (19.3% vs. 11.2%). In fact the preference for a legitimate evasion over other strategies, such as shifting credit, as a deflect strategy is statistically very significant (p = 0.0007) for males, but not for females. A careful examination of the figures shows ttmt this can be characterized as the second most popular male strategy: i.e. to avoid a verbal response altogether by ignoring the compliment or responding to some other aspect of the previous speaker's utterance. It seems probable that this avoidance strategy of changing topic or focus is most likely to be used if a compliment is experienced as embarrassing. The male preference for this strategy would thus be consistent with the hypothesis that compliments are more often experienced as FTAs by men than by women. The preferred [nmale DEFLECT strategies of shifting credit or providing informative comments do not repudiate the compliment so strongly as strategies which ignore it. Given that there are no sex differences in the proportion of REJECT responses used overall, within this category the female preference for a disagreei~g u~tterance rather than a challenging or questioning REJECT strategy is statistically significant (p = 0.00004). The distribution of the male resoonse strategies within the REJECT group is not significantly different though the figures are too small to be very reliable. Given the claim that
s The categories are discussed in mere detail !n He!~e.~ (!927b).


J. Holmes / Compliments, sex and politeness

women tend to use and perceive compliments as positively affecti',e speech acts, k is perhaps surprising that Rr'JECT responses occur in women's usage at all. Rejecting a compliment cannot easily be interpreted as cooperative linguistic behaviour. It is worth noting, however, that this strategy is the least aggressive of the three REJECT strategies, so the significant female preference within this category is consistent with a view of women as relatively cooperative partners in conversation. A more detailed contextual analysis would doubtless provide further clues concerning the contexts in which women and men reject or respond evasively to compliments. It seems probable that these responses will occur most often where a compliment is perceived as an FTA rather than as a positively affective speech act. There is obviously scope for more detailed analysis of the content of specific compliments and c,~mpliment responses in context in order to explore these issues more thoroughly

8. Cone!usion: The function of compHments revisited In the initial discussion of the function of compliment exchanges it was suggested that compliments serve a number of functions in interaction. As positively affective speech acts the most obvious function they serve is to oil the social wheels, paying attention to positive face wants and thus increasing or consolidating solidarity between people. Additionally however they may serve as positive politeness strategies in the context of a face threatening act as in (4) above, Brown and Levinson's example. They comment that by noticing changes or indeed "anything which looks as though H would want S to notice and approve of it" the speaker provides positive redress for the FTA (Brown and Levinson (1978: 108)). A third possibility is that compliments may themselves constitute FTAs, most obviously in that they may indicate "some desire of S towards H or H's goods" (Brown and Levinson (1978: 71)). In discussing a corpus of 484 New Zealand compliments, I have focussed on the distributional evidence that women and men may use and interpret compliments differently. Without detailed contextual analysis the evidence can only be suggestive and the analysis has raised as many questions as it has answered. However, there does seem to be some basis for exploring further the proposal that women tend to use and perceive compliments ~:s solidarity signals, while men are more likely to experience them as FTAs. The evidence can be summarized as follows: (i) women use compliments to each other significantly more often than they do to men or men do to each other; (ii) women use a syntactic form which strengthens the positive force of the compliment significantly more often than men do, whereas men use a

J. Hohnes / Compliments, sex and politeness


form which attenuate~ or hedges on compliment force significantly more often than women do; (iii) women compliment each Gther on appearance more than on any other topic and this is a topic which is generally regarded as most appropriate between equals, friends and intimates, least threatening, most gratuitous' (vs. required by politeness) and most other-oriented; (iv) compliments on possessions (which are those most obviously perceived as FTAs) are used significantly more often between males; (v) compliments to those of different status tend to focus on skills or performance, reinforcing the importance of female-preferential appearance compliments as solidarity signals; (vi) women of higher status are more likely to receive compliments than higher status men suggesting that complimenters may be aware of the risk of discomfiting higher status men wit a an FTA; (vi'i) men's evasive compiim_e!l_c responses m~re often take the form of a marked avoidance strategy than women's do, suggesting they are more anxious to avoid recognizing and responding to a compliment than women. Based as it is on distributional patterns none of this can bc more than suggestive. What it suggests to me is that the next stage in the analysis of compliments will involve a thorough analysis of taped material, enabling detailed interpretation of the functions of compliments in a wide range of contexts. ~ The ethnographic methodology adopted in collecting these compliment data would clearly benefit from refinement in relation to some aspects of the analysis. It is important esp~cialiy in analysing the function of compliments to record intonation as well as syntax and lexis. Similarly in examining the places in discourse where compliments occur, more information about the surrounding discourse is needed than can be provided with a notebock approach. The social and discourse contexts in which compliment exchanges occur must be recorded as crucial clues to their pri~aty function in a particular exchange. One obvious focus for further research is the analysis of compliments which are interpreted as FTAs. The use of REJECT and EVADE strategies as responses to a complimen~. provides a place to begin exploring this aspect of compliment functions. The reasons why people reject or evade responding to a compliment are likely to include the fact that the particular compliment was experienced as face threatening. It may be, for example, that it assumed 6 Cameron (1985:42) presents a very convincing argument for contextualized analysis of conversationalexchanges,pointingout that whether participantsare co-operative or competitive, for instance, willdepend on a variety of factors such as whether they like each other, agree with each other and share each other's aims. The same will be true in interpreting responses to compliments.


J. Holmes/Compliments, sex and politeness

greater intimacy between the participants ~han the recipient feels comfortable with, or that it expressed too overtly the complimenter's envy of the addressee. There are undoubtedly other reasons too and this is an area where further analysis will ce~'tairfiy be revealing. Compliments at;pear to be functionally complex speech acts. Their syntactic regularity and lexical predictability might lead one to dismiss them as lihJguistically rather uninteresting. An analysis of their pragmatic and sociolinguistic features, however, suggests that they serve a number of different functions in interaction. They may serve as solidarity signals, cemeHting friendships, attenuating demands, smoothing ruffled feathers and bridging gaps created by possible offences. On the other hand they may make the addressee uncomfortable by commenting on possessions the speaker appears to covet, or by implying that a closer relationship exists between the speaker and addressee than the addressee wants. I have suggested that men may be more likely to experience and interpret compliments in the latter way as FTAs, while women tend to use and perceive them in the former, as positive politeness devices. ae next st~p in the pursuit of this argument is undoubtedly the kind of contextual analysis which will illuminate the full range of intended and interpreted functions of compliments.

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